How to save journalism

Opinion: Print publishing is in serious decline. Magazine revenues in the US tumbled 22 percent in Q2 this year. McGraw-Hill is selling its old cash cow BusinessWeek and TimeWarner is trying to dump its print group, including the Time in TimeWarner. It’s even worse for newspapers. One only has to visit sites like to understand old-line journalism is in serious decline. European publishers are suffering the same fate with Axel Springer, Sanoma, Mecom, and others all reporting substantial revenue declines.

Internet advocates point to the growth in online revenues. That’s true. According to the Newspaper Association of America online revenues grew overall for the industry by around 25 percent in 2008. The problem is that only represents seven percent of newspaper revenues overall. The same situation applies to magazines. Online publishing is not going to save print.

For those numbskulls who think that bloggers and tweeters will fill the slack that paid writers, reporters, and editors bring to the information industry, well, think (if you can) again. The vast majority of bloggers respond to news events; they don’t cover it.

They don’t call sources, dig into public records, get interviews with people in power, attend public meetings, race off to natural disasters, or do half the things necessary to report and write news. They also don’t have editors to double-check their sources and information. They don’t have copy editors to check their prose. And, they do not have the distribution, marketing, and circulation muscle to generate enough readership to make a business.

(This is not to say the online blogging community is not prodding and critiquing news in valid and profound ways. It is. But with infinitesimally few exceptions, bloggers are not reporting news. They are reacting to it.)

The way to save publishing is not to artificially pump life into print. People prefer to get their news as fast as possible online. I got Tuesday’s news about the Samoan earthquake and tsunami via BreakingNews on Twitter, a full 15 minutes before even had a news flash, nearly an hour before the New York Times website noted it, and 13 hours before the morning paper hit my doorstep. News now belongs to the online world.

But it can’t be sustained without money. One way, of course, is go the government-funded route. BBC is the first and best example of that [Well, up to a point, Lord Copper – Ed]. Germany’s Deustsche Welle is another. But too many government-funded news sources are mere mouthpieces for those in power. Independent publishing operations online need to be able to make money and not depend on government handouts.

Yes, advertising will generate some of it. But I ask you to be realistic. Look at the numbers again: newspapers get 70 percent of their money from print ads and only seven percent from online ads. About 23 percent comes from paid subscribers. You and me.

It’s that last number that gets left out of the discussion by online-only news proponents. They want their cake, the candles, the icing, and they want to eat it for free.

People need to pay for online information. But not the way it has currently been tried. The New York Times Select approach of walling off some information failed. limits the number of times you can access stories. And there have been other approaches. But the best they can do is attract a few tens or, at most, hundreds thousand well-heeled subscribers, while the unfettered websites get millions of visitors.

Why have most for-pay content online approaches failed? Because the publishers have gone it alone. Online publishers need to create a consortium that brings together hundreds, even thousands of publications from around the world that offer a menu of content for a varied price. For example, subscribe online to the LA Times, NYT, the Guardian, Le Monde, Harper’s Magazine, TG Daily, the New Yorker, Stern, Times of India, and Buenos Aires Herald for, oh, say, $5.00 per month. Every month you can change your items on the menu, which can change the price you pay. Subscribe for a year, get a better deal. The more media you choose the better your price per publication.

Right now all of these publishers have some or all their content online for free. Dwindling print and miniscule online ad revenues support that content. That’s a doomed business model. It’s time for readers to chip in and pay their share, but not through the pricey efforts of individual publishers.

I think readers would be willing to pay a fair fee for many pubs online. They want the choice and ease of access they have now for free.

But that choice won’t remain for long unless we are willing to pay the price.